Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion

Review

of an Exhibition

by Megan Holland

Published on March 26, 2012, Modified on April 20, 2012

  • Description:

    Zaha Hadid is one of the world’s influential designers. Born in Iraq and working from Britain, Zaha is known for her innovative architecture and product design. She was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, the first woman to receive the honor. Her work is recognizable for its futuristic, elongated lines, her innovative materials and technologies, and her immersive environments. Knowing this, I approached the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition “Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion” with high expectations.

    From the moment I entered the museum, I was not disappointed. Walking into the Perelman building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one is primed to think about design. This satellite of the PMA is housed in a 1926 art deco building that was once a bank. All that is left of the building is the magnificent façade. Inside the museum is state-of the art design; the vast, glass ceilings in the atrium and the white galleries are fitting of any contemporary, design-forward museum.

    The first work by Hadid that I encountered was located in the middle of the lobby. An itty-bitty, futuristic car looked like it was straight off of the moon. Its silver, aerodynamic shape was striking against the clean, geometric lines of the interior of the museum and a stark contrast to the opulent art deco entranceway. My excitement and eagerness to see crazy new shapes grew.

    Walking into the “Form in Motion” exhibition, I felt like I was wandering into a Cylon-future. The walls of the entranceway were curved, heightening the sense of walking into a portal. The introductory wall text was printed in an elongated swoop, introducing a shape that recurs again and again in Hadid’s design and throughout the exhibition. Attempting to read the words and gain any meaning from them was a challenge, to say the least. I grew dizzy trying to decipher this swoop of words, a feeling that is not uncommon when looking at Hadid’s design. I am glad that I trucked through reading the introductory text, as I learned that Hadid designed the entire exhibition, seeking a “fluid composition” of the gallery, its contents and its visitors. The introduction also asked me to be conscious of the way I moved through the exhibition, as the visitors’ movement through space was a primary consideration of Hadid’s. She created an environment that invited “specific points of interaction and exchange” based on the lines she had designed into the architecture of the room. What was I getting myself into?

    After my headache from reading the wonky introduction panel subsided, I walked into the gallery and immediately understood. The walls had been transformed into long, tiered, curves, with her products displayed in the tiered architecture of the walls. The floor was painted white, with gray vinyl cutouts that mimicked the shapes of the walls. These curves looked organic, like waves splashing against a cliff. The lines were mirrored in the products on display. The first “case,” although I hesitate to call it a case because the tiered walls formed natural shelves, held shoes and tableware. My mother and I were particularly impressed by a centerpiece on display that is comprised of several moving pieces that can be arranged in a number of ways. We spent a few minutes redesigning the piece in our heads. The shapes in this centerpiece directly reflect the shapes found in the centerpiece of the exhibition, a massive formation of benches.

    This example illustrates Zaha Hadid’s major goal; to have the visitor walk through the galleries and have an experience of movement that Hadid, herself, curated. She created an environment in which the visitor can seamlessly make connections between the products on display, the architectural design of the space, and his or her own movement through the galleries. This was true for me until a guard yelled at me for stepping over one of the benches!

    I think that the mark of a successful exhibition shines through visitor behavior and conversation. At the end of the swooping gallery is a dark nook. Visitors can sit on weird, angular plushy chairs of Hadid’s creation and watch a projection of her architectural design against the wall. Being a museum person interested in the visitor experience, I naturally eavesdropped. An image of a massive, white, amorphous train station in the Alps came across the screen and a man behind me said, “That makes me feel cold.” A woman next to me commented “Yes, an ice palace.” The visitors in the room, strangers to each other started having conversations, sharing feelings, perceptions, and opinions, based on the images. To me, it felt like the carefully curated, immersive experience resulted in visitors who felt relaxed and on the same page, comfortable enough to share their feelings in a dark, beautifully designed room.

    This exhibition was wholly interactive, in that the movement of the visitor and the relationship between the visitors’ movement, the space, and the products on display were the big idea of the exhibition. As an architect, Hadid is conscious of creating environments, and this one was seamless. For an art or design museum, the interplay between the gallery space and the objects on display can heighten the experience of the objects in magnificent ways, as I learned at the Perelman.

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